Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Passage to India


I have long wanted to read up on India, knowing that I have an appalling lack of real understanding of the country, region, its history, and the dynamics around that history.  A Passage to India by E.M. Forster has been on my shelf for years, but this year I put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list and hence read it.

After I finished it, I read up on its background on Wikipedia, and discovered that it is on many 100 Best Novels lists.  Midway through I might have argued with that, but the full experience of reading (or in my case, listening) this novel confirms its reputation.  Written in 1924, it is the last of Forster's novels, although Maurice was published posthumously in 1971, it was written in 1913-1914.

I like Forster's novels, having read A Room With a View several times and just finished Howard's End in November, right before I started A Passage to India.

So why is A Passage to India considered one of the best novels ever?  For starters, Forster is a master of clear, deep eloquence.  His works are a pleasure to read--their structure is taut and tends to be circular or perhaps more of a spiral.  There's a sense of completeness as the story folds back to the beginning, but with a difference in time and space and events.

Forster is brutal in his depiction of prejudice, stupidity, narrow-mindedness, and status quo.  He is also balanced.  For example, in A Passage to India, not all the English are boorishly stupid and arrogant, though a good many are.  Likewise, not all the Indians are good and decent people just trying to live their lives.  Some are spiteful, some are arrogant, some are prejudiced themselves.

What I found heartbreaking and real was Forster's depiction of the gulf between people, even when they try hard to find ways to bridge that gulf.  In the end though, friendship, real friendship can exist between members of different tribes, and it is that friendship that becomes the saving grace.  People may not truly understand each other's condition or mind, but trying to makes the difference.

So do I have a better handle on India having read A Passage to India?  A bit, I think.  Although I confess that I feel a bit like Miss Adela Quested herself--armchair traveling, trying to see the "real" India, but reading an Englishman's story about it.

The other thing I want to say about A Passage to India is that I think the whole story is allegorical with regards to the English experience in India.  I don't know whether Forster intended this or not (I would love to read some lit crit on him), but reading A Passage to India felt somewhat like reading A Pilgrim's Progress or Dante's Inferno.  The plot itself was just a device for the journey, the passage from the mosque to the caves to the temple.

I hope to watch the David Lean film from 1984 soon, which I've heard is great.




Saturday, December 13, 2014

Back to the Classics 2015



Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge again in 2015, and I'm all in!  Love this challenge and she has opened the rules up considerably.  Twelve categories, but none are required, and they are great categories...allowing me to wallow in comfort as well as stretch my reading legs a bit.  However, Karen is being a stickler about her definition of a classic--nothing published within the last 50 years (that's 1965) unless it was written earlier than that but published posthumously.

1.  A 19th Century Classic - Framley Parsonage, by Anthony Trollope - yes, I am working my way through the Barset series and this novel is next in line. 
2.  A 20th Century Classic - Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain - part of my WWI reading.  I had hoped to read it in 2014, but couldn't quite get to it.
3.  A Classic by a Woman Author - Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton
4.  A Classic in Translation -  probably another Émile Zola since I enjoyed Germinal so much.
5.  A Very Long Classic Novel - Middlemarch, by George Eliot  - a reread but one of my all-time favorite novels
6.  A Classic Novella  - Washington Square, by Henry James - I'm ready to give James a try...again.
7.  A Classic with a Person's Name in the Title -  David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens - another reread, but it's been over 20 years since the last reading.  Fond memories.
8.  A Humorous or Satirical Classic -  not sure what will strike my fancy here.
9.  A Forgotten Classic - possibly something by Emily Kimbrough; I'm keeping this one open for inspiration to strike.  

10.  A Nonfiction Classic -  The Art of Eating, by M.F.K. Fisher - it's been on my shelf for far too long and the essay format will make it ideal for reading over a long period of time.
11.  A Classic Children's Book -  Eight Cousins, by Louisa May Alcott and/or Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery
12.  A Classic Play -  Henry VI, part I, by William Shakespeare (the Colorado Shakespeare Festival is doing a reading of this in the summer, so I will be going to that and probably rereading it before hand).





Friday, December 12, 2014

Back to the Classics Challenge Wrap Up



Karen at Books and Chocolate hosted the Back to the Classics Challenge this year (and she's hosting again in 2015!) and as usual it was my favorite challenge of the year.  I'm a big fan of classics and had a great year completing the required categories and challenging myself with the optional categories.  I read in all the required categories, and three out of the five optional ones.




  • A 20th Century Classic - The Sybil, by Pär Lagerkvist - this was a reread for me, and I remember liking it better as a college student than I did on the reread but still a very interesting book.
  • A 19th Century Classic - Dr. Thorne, by Anthony Trollope - book three in Trollope's Barset novels and my favorite so far.  The more I read Trollope, the more I like him.
  • A Classic by a Woman Author - Jane of Lantern Hill, by L.M. Montgomery - a sweet, interesting story that charmed me and made me wish I had read it as young teen.
  • A Classic in Translation - Germinal, by Emile Zola - one of the best books of 2014 for me; amazing in so many ways.
  • A Classic About War  - The 39 Stepsby John Buchan - a bit of a sleeper but I ended up enjoying it and wanting to read more by Buchan.
  • A Classic by an Author Who Is New To You - Miss Marjoribanks, by Margaret Oliphant - what a fun book.  Miss Majoribanks is unlike every other Victorian heroine you might have met.
  • Optional Categories:
    1. An American Classic - The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton - I loved this sad, beautifully written story.
    2. A Classic Mystery, Suspense or Thriller - Mystery Mile, by Margery Allingham - finally read this classic mystery; wonderful country home setting, definitely Golden Era style.
    3. A Historical Fiction Classic - Waverly, by Sir Walter Scott - my nemesis; I can't seem to get my act together to get this one read.  Another year where it sat on the shelf.
    4. A Classic That's Been Adapted Into a Movie or TV Series - East of EdenJohn Steinbeck - I liked it so much I read it twice this year--once in the summer and once in the fall.  
    5. Extra Fun Category:  Write a Review of the Movie or TV Series adapted from Optional Category #4 - still haven't watched either the James Dean version or the Jane Seymour version but hope to soon.
    Other classics read in 2014 include the following:
    The Bell Jarby Sylvia Plath 
    South Riding, by Winifred Holt
    Howards End, by E.M. Forster
    Highland River, by Neil M. Gunn
    The Watsons, by Jane Austen
    Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen
    A Midsummer Night's Dream, by William Shakespeare
    The Merry Wives of Windsor, by William Shakespeare
    The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens

    And, I'm almost done with A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster.

    I'm looking forward to signing up for Back to the Classics Challenge for 2015...just need to work on my list!

    Wednesday, December 10, 2014

    South Riding by Winifred Holtby



    I am a long-time fan of George Eliot's Middlemarch, so when I read in the introduction to Winifred Holtby's South Riding, which was written by Andrew Davies, who did the screenplay for the BBC mini-series version of the book that he compared it to Middlemarch, I thought "aha, that's why I like it so much!"  Davies goes on to say that South Riding is "a portrait of a whole community at a time of change and stress, with an endearing and idealistic heroine at its centre."

    The time of change and stress is 1934 in Yorkshire--the country, like the world, is in an economic depression.  People are still reeling from the catastrophe of the Great War and are fully aware that the conflict is not resolved, just on the back burner.  Into a rural society that is struggling to transform itself from one based on tradition-steeped agrarian values to one based on the liberal view that government should exist for the people and not vice versa, Sarah Burton bursts on the scene as the newly hired headmistress of the girls high school in the region.

    Sarah is progressive, assertive, attractive and energetic.  She wants to mold girls who will enjoy freedoms never imagined by their mothers.  She is a teacher and a mentor and a role model, and is appalled when she falls in love with the local squire, the most reactionary man in the county, Robert Carne.

    One of the things that I loved about South Riding was that, like in Middlemarch, the various characters are complex, realistic people.  There are really no villains and no heroes--there are people, mostly good, but who are weak in some areas, fragile, vulnerable, and entirely sympathetic.  Regardless of how they choose to live their lives, they have their own story that enables the reader to understand and in some measure empathize with them.  Robert Carne, though he is cast in the role of reactionary country squire, he is motivated by the same impulses as Sarah and the other liberals with whom he battles--they all want what is best for the people of the district, they just have polar opposite views with regards to how to achieve that end.

    Winifred Holtby is worth reading up on.  She died at age 37, shortly after completing South Riding, which was published posthumously in 1936 and was edited by her close friend and companion, Vera Brittain.  Brittain wrote of her friendship with Holtby in her book Testament of Friendship in 1940. One of the main characters in South Riding is Mrs. Beddows,  the only female alderman on the South Riding council.  Holtby modeled Mrs. Beddows on her own mother, who was the first female alderman in the East Riding County Council.  I think Holtby's portrait of Mrs. Beddows is one of the finest tributes a daughter could pay to a mother.

    Now that I've read the novel, I am rewatching the BBC mini-series and appreciating anew the wonderful adaptation that Davies did of this marvelous book.


    I'm closing in on finishing up my TBR Pile Challenge, and this is book number 10!  Two more to go by end of year, and I've started both of them.

    Monday, December 01, 2014

    Never Let Me Go


    Kazuo Ishiguro certainly writes interesting novels.  I really enjoyed his classic The Remains of the Day, which I finally read last year, and I just finished and was so impressed by his distopian novel, Never Let Me Go.

    I am not a big fan of distopian novels, but I did love Ishiguro's writing, so I added it to my TBR Pile Challenge for 2014 and am so glad I did.  Never Let Me Go is one of those novels that makes you think about it long after you've read the last word.

    Published in 2005, the novel takes place in England roughly ten years earlier and is a first-person narrative by Kathy H., who recounts her childhood and youth as a student at a boarding school and then working as a health care provider, or "carer."  Ishiguro is masterful in slowly and carefully peeling away the story that Kathy tells, until the full horror of the world in which Kathy and her friends live can be fully realized.

    In writing in the voice of Kathy, Ishiguro perfectly captures not only the cadence and speech patterns of a young woman remembering her life, trying to be accurate, trying to be fair, but also assuming the listener (or reader!) understands how her world works and so doesn't need to explain everything at once.  In the course of the narrative, Kathy recounts how she and her friends, Tommy and Ruth, come to understand who they are and what is expected of them, and the reader learns about the world in real time along with Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth.

    I found the book absolutely chilling and bit part of why I found it so chilling was that the world is so recognizable in so many ways.  Apart from not having parents and siblings, Kathy and friends seem not terribly unlike most modern teens who live in a school environment.  I kept on thinking early on that Never Let Me Go seemed like a cross between Harry Potter and The Stepford Wives.

    Even after Kathy discloses her fate and that of the other students, she is so accepting, so clinical, so detached.  I was actually a bit surprised that no one ever attempted to escape the system...but perhaps that's another story.

    It's tough to write a review of a book like this without spoilers, but I found it absolutely riveting, horribly sad, and a fair warning regarding not letting the magic of science outstrip dignity and humanity.  If Frankenstein was Mary Shelley's and the Romantic movement's riff on the dangers of science unchecked, then Never Let Me Go is Ishiguro's and ours.

    I am so looking forward to the movie, which I've heard is excellent, with Cary Mulligan as Kathy, and Keira Knightley as Ruth.


    Friday, November 28, 2014

    Author Interview: Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James



    Earlier this month, I read Syrie James's latest novel, Jane Austen's First Love, and thought it was so fun and interesting that I jumped at the opportunity to interview James about her story for the Jane Austen's First Love Holiday Blog Tour.  The tour runs through December 14, so make sure you visit other blogs on the tour, comment, and get entered to win one of five Austen-inspired prize packages.

    On to the interview...

    In the afterword to the novel, James discusses the research behind the story and that it was inspired by real people and real events. That naturally led me to wonder where fact ended and fantasy began. Writing about real people, especially a beloved author such as Jane Austen, means that you don’t have the same free rein to create a character that you would without the historical record and what she left behind in her letters and fiction. So here are a few things that I wondered about while reading Jane Austen’s First Love and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to ask the author what was in her mind while she was writing the book.

    Author Syrie James
    Syrie James, hailed as “the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings” by Los Angeles Magazine, is the bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed novels that have been translated into 18 languages. Her books have been awarded the Audio Book Association Audie, designated as Editor’s Picks by Library Journal, named a Discover Great New Writer’s Selection by Barnes and Noble, a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association, and Best Book of the Year by The Romance Reviews and Suspense Magazine. Syrie is a member of the WGA and lives in Los Angeles. Please visit her at syriejames.comFacebook or say hello on Twitter @SyrieJames


    1.   You portray Austen as a 15-year old as quite a tomboy and daredevil, unable to resist proving that she is as capable as a boy.  Is that a key characteristic in your view of who Austen was or is this something she outgrew or suppressed over time?

    Jane Austen grew up in a home filled with noisy, active boys—not only her many brothers but also a succession of young men who boarded at Steventon Rectory and were educated by Jane’s father. Jane and her sister Cassandra were educated right alongside them, and were included in the sports and games the boys played. Austen’s biographies paint her as something of a tomboy in her youth, and she described Catherine Moreland (Northanger Abbey) as a girl who “was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket…to dolls” and “loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.” I think Jane was calling on her own experience as a youth here. Did she grow out of it? Apparently—but as she matured, her letters still reveal a lively, vivacious woman who loved exercise and the out of doors—and she was not averse to taking a risk. Austen devoted years of her life to writing novels that she knew might never be published. That was a huge risk, but it didn't stop her.

    2.   I love the idea of Austen playing Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream.  Are there any references to this play in any of Austen's letters—in other words, did you pick this play because it was perfect for your plot or was there another Austen connection to it?

    Jane Austen and her family were devoted fans of Shakespeare’s work. I didn’t find a specific reference to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in her letters, but I chose that play because it not only fit perfectly with my plot and theme (and is a truly delightful confection), it was ideal timing for the story. As Jane’s brother Edward Austen says in the novel, “To perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Midsummer’s Eve itself! What an inspired notion.”



    3.   There were a few scenes when I felt that you were inspired by an actual visit to Goodnestone--such as when Edward and Jane walk the high wall--is that true?  Did you visit the estate before, after, or while writing the story?

    I wrote the entire first draft of the novel before I had a chance to visit Goodnestone Park. All I had to go on at the time were a few photos, one of which showed a garden enclosed by a high brick wall. I was determined to see the estate in person before the book was finalized, to make sure my representation of it was accurate. So I went to England, and although the house is not usually open to public view, I was privileged to be given a private tour of the Goodnestone Park house and grounds by the current owner of the estate, a descendant of the Bridges family who Jane Austen knew. After imagining Goodnestone in my mind for such a long time, it was a thrill to be there in person. I drank in everything I saw and took lots of notes. The interior floor plan and the size of some rooms were different than I’d imagined, the gardens were laid out in a way I hadn’t anticipated, and the brick walls enclosing looked about eleven feet high! To my relief I discovered a brick wall that, although still very high, was climbable and fit with the scene I’d written in my novel. I then went home and revised my description of the house and grounds to fit with reality.



    4.   Edward Taylor has a definite radical streak—does this characterize his later life?  Apart from Elizabeth Bennet’s assertion that she and Mr. Darcy are equals in that he is a gentleman and she is a gentleman’s daughter, I’ve never seen Austen or her family as in the radical camp.  Do you see Austen as more radical than her reputation as a Tory would have us believe?  And, do we know whether she ever did powder her hair? :)

    Edward Taylor’s brother Herbert, in his memoirs (published as The Taylor Papers), mentions an interest in reading military history and his early determination to enter the army. Herbert was very close to his brothers, and recounts the high jinks they engaged in while growing up, jumping over high hedges and getting into all kinds of scrapes. I drew a bit on that to create Edward Taylor’s character, sensing that Edward would have been very much like his brother Herbert. We know that Edward Taylor left Oxford and served in the army for several years, a very unusual choice for the eldest son and heir to a grand estate.

    I don’t think Jane Austen was a radical per se—but she certainly had a mind of her own, and (in letters to her sisters) said what she thought about people, with a wink in her eye and without pulling any punches! I don’t know for certain if Austen ever powdered her hair, but she was very fashion-conscious and liked to follow the current trends (as much as her budget would allow), so it’s very likely that she did. Some characters in her juvenilia, which she wrote in the time period in which Jane Austen’s First Love occurs, powder their hair.

    5.   I found bits and pieces of Austen's novels strewn all over Jane Austen’s First Love, which made the reading extra fun, smiling when I found the Easter Eggs.  Did you consciously set out to include something from each, or was that a happy outcome?

    I’m so glad you enjoyed finding those! The subtle references to Austen’s later works were great fun to include. The only one that was planned ahead of time was the matchmaking aspect from Emma. All the rest came up naturally as I thought of them, with no intention to try to encompass all of her work. Did I really include something from each? I had no idea.

    6.         Austen famously never married and yet wrote some of literature’s most enduring and poignant love stories. Do you think that Austen could've written about love in the convincing way she did if she never actually experienced love herself?

    Jane Austen was a brilliant craftsman and an astute observer of human nature, so anything is possible. But I feel certain that Jane Austen fell in love, and more than once—and that the experience had a great influence on her work.

    7.         Along the same lines, the movie Becoming Jane, based on the Jon Spence book, suggested that Austen's relationship with Tom Lefroy enabled her to become the writer of the great, timeless fiction so many of us love.  Is your premise the same--i.e., that Austen's relationship with Edward Taylor when she was fifteen was the catalyst her genius required?

    One of the catalysts—yes. 

    8.         Apart from Emma, the meddling matchmaker, which Austen heroines do you see in your Jane Austen, age fifteen?

    The clever, witty, vivacious Elizabeth Bennet; the enthusiastic but naïve Catherine Moreland; the sensitive, romantic Marianne Dashwood; and the sprightly young heroine of Austen’s unfinished work Catherine, or the Bower.

    9.        I confess that I saw more of the "rogues" in Edward Taylor--specifically Henry Crawford and Frank Churchill-- than her heroes. I kept on waiting for Edward to play false with Jane. Did you see your Edward Taylor as a model or inspiration for any one of Austen's heroes in her novels?

    I didn’t draw on any of Austen’s characters when bringing Edward Taylor to life; rather, I saw him as his own unique person, and drew on what I knew of his real life. But I do think it possible that Austen had Edward Taylor in mind while writing some of her juvenilia and her famous novels. He was wealthy, heir to a grand estate, honest, highly intelligent, extremely well-read, and a deep thinker. Some of his other qualities (such as his hunger for for excitement adventure) do evoke Austen’s lovable rogues, but Edward is true to Jane and I think very worthy of her affection.


    10.      How do you prep before sitting down to write as Jane Austen--i.e., this is a first-person narrative of a real person.  Is the process different from when you write a first-person narrative of an entirely fictional character?

    With a fictional character, I create their back story, conduct interviews with people in their profession, research the location of the story, and write a detailed outline. To write from the point of view of a real historical character, especially one as famous as Jane Austen, whose writing style is well-known to all the world, is far more complicated and time-consuming. I spent years researching Jane’s life. I visited all the places Austen lived in England as well as the house where Jane Austen’s First Love is set. I read everything Austen wrote many times over. Nearly every single character in this novel is real, so I had to research every one of them. Only then was I ready to lay out the story. While writing this novel, I had to constantly steep myself in Austen’s work (especially her letters) to keep her voice in my head. And I loved every minute.

    11. Was it difficult to create a story around this youthful relationship knowing that there never could be a traditional happy ending to it?  How did it change the writing process, knowing the ending before you began to develop the plot?

    I viewed this book, as I did my novel The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, as a love story rather than a traditional romance. Although by definition a romance novel requires a Happily Ever After, a love story is more open ended—the emphasis is on the emotional journey the lovers experience, and what they learn from each other is more important than whether or not they end up together. We all know that Jane Austen never married, but it’s thrilling to imagine her falling in love. Knowing that she and Edward wouldn’t be together forever did influence the way I plotted the novel. I didn’t put up many obstacles to their romance in the beginning. I wanted their attraction to be immediate and profound, so they could spend a lot of time together, and we could have the pleasure of seeing their feelings blossom as they fall in love.


    I really enjoyed the story, especially the play and how it worked within the plot, and I thought your representation of a young Jane Austen to be convincing and memorable, sweet and energetic.  I really enjoyed her relationship with her brothers—both of whom seemed to bring out the best in her.  Well done!

    Thank you so much, Jane! I loved your thoughtful and though-provoking questions, and am delighted that you hosted me on your blog today. Readers: do you have any comments or questions for me? If so, please fire away!


    GRAND GIVEAWAY CONTEST WIN ONE OF FIVE FABULOUS JANE AUSTEN-INSPIRED PRIZE PACKAGES 

    To celebrate the holidays and the release of Jane Austen's First Love, Syrie is giving away five prize packages filled with an amazing selection of Jane Austen-inspired gifts and books! To enter the giveaway contest, simply leave a comment on any of the blog stops.

    Increase your chances of winning by visiting multiple stops along the tour! Syrie's unique guest posts will be featured on a variety of subjects, along with fun interviews, spotlights, excerpts, and reviews of the novel. Contest closes at 11:59pm PT, December 21, 2014. Five lucky winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments on the tour, and announced on this page on December 22, 2014. The giveaway contest is open to everyone, including international residents. Good luck to all!



    Wednesday, November 26, 2014

    Happy Thanksgiving


    Best wishes to all my bookish friends for a Happy Thanksgiving.

    I'm looking forward to finishing up my various reading challenges for 2014.  I am pretty much done with the Back to the Classics challenge but might get one more optional category (the movie!) under my belt before I call it done.  TBR Pile is still daunting with four books left to finish.  I also am reading the December book in the GoodReads TuesBookTalk group, and want to read The Chimes with the Pickwick and Victorians GoodReads groups.  Thank goodness I've got three plane trips next week, so that will give me some extra reading time.

    Be sure to check in on Friday for my stop on the Jane Austen's First Love Holiday Book Tour.  I've done an interview with author Syrie James and I think you'll find her answers to my questions interesting.



    If you're looking for some great Thanksgiving fiction, check out my review (from last year) of Ellen Cooney's Thanksgiving, short stories that span generations of a New England family.

    Travel safely, eat hearty, count your blessings, and start your making your 2015 reading lists!


    Monday, November 24, 2014

    Germinal by Émile Zola



    I received a copy of Émile Zola's novel Germinal years ago as the result of a fellow blogger's giveaway that I won, and I finally read it this Fall.  It took me a little while because it is such a dense, somber story, and I needed to take breaks from time to time to cleanse my palate.  Fortunately, the book is divided into seven parts, so I read one roughly each week.  I ended up being totally blown away by the book, and enthusiastically gave it five Goodreads stars.

    I read the Oxford World Classics version, translated from French by Peter Collier, with an introduction, which I just read tonight, by Robert Lethbridge.  I found the introduction to be such fun to read--a great way to help me sort through why I responded so warmly to such a bleak book.

    And it is bleak.  The central character, Etienne Lantier, is a budding socialist who, desperate for work, arrives in a mining village in northern France in the mid-1880s, is hired on, falls in love with his landlord's daughter, and leads the starving, poverty-stricken miners and their families in a strike that ultimately fails and worsens the lot of the villagers.  He survives the collapse of a mine that he is working in and survives floods, explosions, and a murderous rival during the twelve days he is trapped underground.

    The novel gets its name from one of the springtime months within the French Republican Calendar, and while the novel seems to end on a positive note, with the emergence of springtime after the long cold winter of massive discontent, I couldn't forget that spring and summer ripen and fade into fall and winter.

    Despite the bleakness--and it is truly jaw-dropping to read about the horrific conditions under which these French miners existed--I found the book absolutely compelling and the energy contained within it electrifying.  I think Lethbridge, in his introduction, expressed what caught me as "the synthesis of the archetypal with the documentary."

    Starting first with the documentary, Zola seamlessly wrote of the details of the lives of the mining families as well as their bourgeois mine managers in the context of the intricacies of mine machinery, operation, dynamics, geology, structure and the sights and smells and feelings of being underground. Before he wrote novels, Zola had been a journalist and even though Germinal is the 13th novel in a 20-volume series, he went back to his training as a journalist and thoroughly researched the mining industry in northern France before writing the book.

    But detailed descriptions alone do not great literature make,  Zola also employed a rich and layered imagery, for example denoting the mine as a beast who must be fed humanity to survive.  And from that imagery, Zola was able to tap into our collective remembered stories, the archetypal stories that keep on reappearing down the ages, and that are referred to as myths.  Germinal has Demeter/Persephone/Hades, it has the prodigal son, it has Cain and Abel, and it has the maenads (female followers of Dionysus) to name a few, and probably many more that I didn't even recognize.

    It's that "synthesis of the archetypal with the documentary" that makes Germinal work.  It is utterly believable--it feels like truth.

    Final note--if you are moved to adding Germinal to your classics reading list, seek out the translation by Peter Collier.  It is absolutely riveting.  It sounds modern but at the same time completely realistic for 1880's French miners.  It is raw, graphic, often vulgar, and utterly unlike anything else I've read from this time period.  I find it surprising that this book wasn't banned for its frank depiction of sex, poverty, drunkenness, and debauchery--perhaps it was.  It is also poetic and lyrical.  It is as if Zola put his hand on the pulse of humanity and opened a vein.

    Monday, November 17, 2014

    The Hundred-Foot Journey



    I loved the movie The Hundred-Foot Journey, so when I heard that it was based on a book by Richard C. Morais I thought it would be a great audio treat.  While the book was okay--three stars on GoodReads--here is a case where the movie is definitely better than the book.

    The first half of Morais's The Hundred-Foot Journey provides the story for the movie, but with some significant changes.  I have to say that I like the story arc in the movie so much more than in the book.

    Spoilers for book and movie below...

    In the movie, Hassan returns to Lumiere, the village in France where his displaced family finally settles down, and becomes the chef who wins the third Michelin star for Madame Mallory's restaurant, Le Saule Pleureur.  He returns to his girlfriend, Margaret, the sou chef, and together they soar to culinary heights surrounded by friends and family.  It is a warm, lovely story about loyalty, roots, home, community, and joie de vivre.

    The book takes a different tack.  Hassan never returns to Lumiere.  Both Papa and Madame Mallory die.  Hassan's restaurant finally does earn three Michelin stars, but most of the Paris part of the book is gastronomic showboating.  While it was fun to read about Paris and the world of haute cuisine, Hassan becomes an insufferable bore.  When Margaret finally tracks him down in the city, she is begging for a job, having left an abusive husband, and with two children in tow.  It's all rather pathetic.

    Whereas the movie is life-affirming and satisfying, the book is ultimately a bit on the depressing side.

    Back to the movie, Helen Mirren is perfectly cast as Madame Mallory, the uptight French chef and restaurateur who becomes Hassan's mentor, and Hassan, Papa, and Marguerite (Margaret in the book) are all equally perfect.  But the real star of the movie is Lumiere, the village in France, where Hassan's family stumbles upon and stays.  Like its name, it's full of light, and exquisite.  Lush, verdant, bucolic, self-contained.

    I found an article about the town where the movie was filmed.  It is Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the Midi-Pyrénées in southern France.  I think a pilgrimage is in order!



    Tuesday, November 11, 2014

    Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow


    Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow was the talk of the 70's.  Published in 1975, it was a best seller and, I didn't know it at the time, considered innovative, even revolutionary.  

    I didn't read it when it first came out--then, as now, I eschew best-sellers, with the still misguided notion that what the masses like can't be good.  However, I have heard for years that it's a wonderful novel, so I put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list and finally read it.

    I liked it--found it interesting, taking place in very early 20th century New York City, a time and place I particularly like reading about.  Doctorow has a fine vocabulary and I found myself reaching for my smart phone many times to look up a word, or a place, or a person.

    After I finished it, I did a bit of reading about the book--while good, I was curious as to why critics back in the 1970's found it innovative.  I found it fairly routine in technique.  What I learned is that Doctorow was one of the first, if not the first, novelist to blur the lines between fiction and real-history, including in his cast of characters real people, such as Henry Ford, J Pierpont Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, and Harry Houdini, among others.  His fictional characters, many of whom are unnamed but labeled (i.e., Father, Mother, Younger Brother), interact freely with historical characters.  Doctorow creates scenes and circumstances that might have been but that history didn't record.

    I was surprised to learn that this was innovative in the 1970's.  It is such a mainstay of historical fiction these days--but weren't Gore Vidal and James Michener doing this already?  Maybe somebody can enlighten me as to the difference between Burr and Centennial and Ragtime, with regards to blurring the lines between fiction and history.

    Doctorow did such a good job with his character and story line around Coalhouse Walker, the black jazz pianist who ends up holding Morgan's library hostage, that I had to search the internet to determine whether he was a real historical person or not.  It turns out not--but Coalhouse and his story were lifted by Doctorow from a German novella entitled Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich Von Kleist and published in 1808--the Kleist work was itself a reworking of a 16th century story about Hans Kohlhase.  

    I liked the theme Doctorow presented that the 20th century was one centered around creating and exploiting reproducible experiences (e.g., Ford's innovation in the automobile industry was all around creating clones of the Model T cheaply and quickly).  I liked extending this to character and thought it interesting that Doctorow wrote Ragtime during the part of the 20th century during which young people sought to find themselves, express their uniqueness and individuality, and not be part of the cookie cutter suburbia that their parents embraced so warmly.

    Here are a couple of articles I found particularly interesting and informative.


    Based on a True Story, On Critics and Criticism
    'Ragtime' Evokes Real and Fictional Pasts, New York Times (about the 1981 movie, but still relevant to the book)

    Hey! Grandpa Was Right-Doctorow Stole Ragtime, New York Observer

    Now I'm eager to see the movie as well as the stage musical.